Are fast-pitch softball pitchers indestructable?
June 6, 2007 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Why do fast-pitch softball pitchers pitch every game?

Having been enthralled by the NCAA softball tournament that has been on ESPN over the last 2 weeks, I've noticed that fast-pitch softball pitchers pitch every game for their team. Why is that? Baseball pitchers only pitch every fifth game. Is the underhand motion less straining on the arm than the traditional baseball overhand pitching motion?
posted by LouMac to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, and the good ones are rare.
posted by longsleeves at 7:24 PM on June 6, 2007


To the best of my understanding, overhand throwing is a powerful but inefficient and awkward motion; softball pitchers can get incredible speed and stamina because they're keeping their arms where they actually belong. Throwing overhand is wrist-snapping and shoulder-straining, but throwing underhand you're whipping the whole arm, plus powering the ball forward, PLUS wrist-whipping (I suspect).

All of which is to say: if yer gonna throw a baseball, warm up for a much longer time than you think you need to.
posted by waxbanks at 8:08 PM on June 6, 2007


In reading about the early history of baseball, I've found that pitchers always pitched a lot longer, most of the time they all had to pitch complete games. If they fell apart, well, that was part of the handicap the offense would have to make up for.
posted by tcv at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2007


Softball is an inherently unbalanced sport because of several factors, including:

* The pitching circle is placed significantly closer to the plate than a baseball rubber.
* The ball is softer than a baseball, obviously.
* The bat is not tapered (it's a cylinder, not an inverted cone shape), which gives it less power.
* The bases are shorter than baseball.
* It's generally played by women, who have less upper body strength, on average, than men.

The reason for this is that, originally, softball was specifically designed to be a "gentle" sport. A "de-tuned" version of baseball, if you will. You were less likely to be injured by a softer ball thrown underhand by a woman and hit by a bat that couldn't transfer power most efficiently.

Now, flash forward several decades. Female athletes have advanced, but the game hasn't. Stronger, better athletes are further unbalancing an already unbalanced sport.

The sport now places an extraordinary emphasis on pitching because the softball pitcher has enormous advantages over a baseball pitcher (primarily, being nearly 20 feet closer to the plate, throwing at a batter that can rarely hit for power). It's not uncommon to see ERAs below 1.00, several points lower than similar baseball players. Pitchers throw multiple no-hitters over the course of career, where a baseball pitcher would be lucky to have just one. Perfect games are rare, but not dazzling, gem-like feats, like in baseball. Pitching is so unbalanced that softball strategy includes "slap hitters" that barely do more than attempt glorified bunts.

At the same time, you don't see the kind of depth of pitching talent in softball as you do in baseball. In a typical major-league baseball five-man rotation, there is not a tremendous talent difference between Starters 1 and 2. The same can't be said for high-level softball. The talent drop-off between Nos. 1 and 2 could be huge. The reasons for this are many, but mostly it boils down to a smaller pool of available players overall, which makes the "stud" pitchers really stand out.

So, softball pitchers throw so often because:

* Underhand delivery is kinematically less strenuous (see the other answers, above).
* There is less high-level pitching talent, on average, than a similar pool of baseball players.
* Pitching is so enormously important, far more than in baseball, that it makes strategic sense to have your best pitcher throwing nearly everyday, and have a smaller pool of pitchers compared to position players.
posted by frogan at 10:23 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


You'll also find that "submarine" style baseball pitchers are "rubber armed" for the same kinesthetic reasons.
posted by YoungAmerican at 11:00 PM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sorry to piggy-back on the question, but maybe someone reading this can answer my lingering question...

Could a major leaguer ever develop an underarm/softball style that produces a fastball with enough speed? Also, the women throw some wicked off-speed pitches--say, a 46mpg change-up after throwing a 63mph fastball. Is that a result of the underarm mechanics, or are there other factors? If a major leaguer could throw an 80mph underarm fastball followed by a 60mpg change-up, I think it could be interesting.
posted by mullacc at 12:01 AM on June 7, 2007


OT: Submarine in baseball
posted by rhizome at 12:06 AM on June 7, 2007


I, too, watched the WCWS and have a question: why don't softball players wear "baseball" caps? A few players don visors on the field. Batters and runners wear batting helmets. Male coaches wear baseball caps. But most of the women are bare-headed on defense, despite hot sun and bright lights.

My guess: baseball cap avoidance is like the mascara Jenae Leles wears, an "I'm feminine, even though I'm an athlete" display.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:31 AM on June 7, 2007


Oh, I was so obsessed with the softball, too. And Carol Anne, I think it is for prime hair-ribbon display (which made me like it even more, honestly) and because baseball cap + ponytail is awkward, especially if you are taking it on and off.
posted by dame at 6:10 AM on June 7, 2007


I'm glad ESPN airs it. It's very cool to watch.
posted by tcv at 6:24 AM on June 7, 2007


dame, thanks for your explanation. I like it better than my guess!
posted by Carol Anne at 6:39 AM on June 7, 2007


Cwgrlup's gf says: As a former softball player I can tell you that a pitcher pitching every game in softball is very common. A team finds the one ace they think can go for every game and they ride her arm. And yes it is easier for a softball pitcher to go longer than a male pitcher because the motion is the normal motion. As in the case of most of the pitchers that pitched in the WCWS they are the best their team has and they want to win with the best.

Now to frogan, I don't believe that softball is unbalanced and I can say that the softball is NOT softer than a baseball. As a player who has been hit several times with a softball and a baseball I can tell you that they are the same. And even if it does seem to be softer it hurts just the same to be hit with both. And I don't think it is fair to say that they girls aren't as good as the guys when they are. Look at Jenny Finch who stood up on the baseball circle and struck out many Major League baseball hitters. And if you think that being closer to the plate is easier than in baseball you obviously have not played softball before. Because is not an advantage to the hitter or the pitcher.

And yes the ponytail and baseball hats don't mix very well which is why you will see most girls wearing visors.
posted by CwgrlUp at 7:01 AM on June 7, 2007


And if you think that being closer to the plate is easier than in baseball you obviously have not played softball before. Because is not an advantage to the hitter or the pitcher.

Except that the pitcher being closer to the plate means that the hitter has less time to judge and react. Jesus.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:31 AM on June 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


The question has been answered already, but I played softball competitively for awhile and my team had one very good pitcher with a very strong arm. He pitched almost every game. We won provincials, but in some of the tournaments, including provincials, there were restrictions on the number of innings he could pitch. We found it very difficult to play those extra innings until we picked up another great pitcher from one of the teams we defeated in the city championships. He didn't have the same speed, but he was tougher to hit. All of which is to say that pitching is extremely important in softball and good pitchers are few and far between.
posted by smorange at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2007


And if you think that being closer to the plate is easier than in baseball you obviously have not played softball before. Because is not an advantage to the hitter or the pitcher.

I'm sorry, but that's just wrong. Being closer to the plate is a tremendous advantage to the pitcher, which is why the distance was lengthened in 1893. As the Baseball Historian site says:
Prior to 1893 the pitching mound was only 50 feet from home plate. To offset the awesome pitching of Cleveland's Cy Young and Amos Rusie of the New York Giants, the mound was lengthened to its present distance of 60 feet 6 inches. The shorter distance had allowed fastball pitchers to record a huge number of strikeouts, and so then, it is difficult for baseball historians to judge the best pitchers of the 1880's by modern statistics. But both 'Hall of Famers' Young and Rusie's numbers improved after the above pitching change.

Even though this was still the 'dead ball era', when the pitching mound was lengthen batting averages soared. In 1894, the Philadelphia Phillies had a team batting average of .349 and Boston's Hugh Duffy hit .440, the all-time major league high. It took a few years before pitchers developed and became masters of the curve ball, changeup and spit ball, which was legal during this era.

Baseball fans loved the longer distance and tricky new pitches and flocked to their hometown ball parks...
(See here for convenient summary of relevant rule changes.)
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on June 7, 2007


An additional thing to take into account is that softball players don't have to worry about keeping their arm in the best condition into their forties like a MLB pitcher should, so they can give it their all more often.
posted by drezdn at 8:56 AM on June 7, 2007


Can anyone point me to some articles about with a more kinematic, scientific discussion of the underhand throwing motion being less strenuous?
posted by LouMac at 10:24 AM on June 7, 2007


Now to frogan, I don't believe that softball is unbalanced

Baseball has been played at a major-league level for more than 100 years. In that time, strategy has not changed significantly, and neither has the nature of the day-to-day, routine plays. Guys are still thrown out at first about two steps away from the bag, and the base length hasn't changed, but the athletes are 10 times faster. That's balance. And since softball is derived from baseball, we can guess the intent of the sports creators to mimic baseball as best they could. But in the 30-odd years since Title IX, softball ERAs are super-low, and no-hitters are common events. That's unbalance, if baseball is considered the starting reference point.

I can say that the softball is NOT softer than a baseball. As a player who has been hit several times with a softball and a baseball I can tell you that they are the same.

I think it's pretty conclusive that a baseball is denser than a softball. Getting hit by a softball may hurt quite a bit, but you cannot efficiently impart the same kinds of force to a softball as you can a baseball. Strike a baseball with the same kind of force as a softball, and it'll go farther.

And I don't think it is fair to say that they girls aren't as good as the guys when they are.

I thought I was being very careful not to say that at all. I said there was a smaller pool of top-level players. This is simply because there is a greater percentage of baseball players among all males than there are softball players among all women. A smaller pool makes the "big fish in the pond" stand out in greater contrast to the "little fish."

But I think the upper-body strength difference is pretty clear. That would have a huge impact on batting and throwing overhand; I'm unsure of the impact on pitching, given the different kinematics at work with an underhand throw.

Look at Jenny Finch who stood up on the baseball circle and struck out many Major League baseball hitters.

Actually, it was a softball circle, so it was 20 feet closer. And yeah, any top-notch softball pitcher will make baseball players look like fools from this distance. When I was a sportswriter, I watched several stunts like this, where college softball hurlers strike out college baseball players in three pitches.

But if Jenny Finch were to back up 20 feet and still throw 80 mph from that distance, major league players would go to town on her. And that's assuming she modifies her delivery to throw from a mound, with a two-foot drop in height.

And if you think that being closer to the plate is easier than in baseball you obviously have not played softball before. Because is not an advantage to the hitter or the pitcher.

Just on its face, it's an extreme advantage to a pitcher. Sorry! An 80 mph pitch thrown from 47 feet arrives at the plate much faster than a 90 mph pitch thrown from 60 feet. A 47-foot circle vastly outweighs any height or leverage advantage provided by a baseball mound, too.

The only area where it wouldn't be an advantage to a pitcher is against a slap hitter, who deliberately trades power for bat accuracy and basepath speed. And that's why young girls are often turned into left-handed slap hitters -- so they can hit the ball and get a 3-foot head start to first base.
posted by frogan at 1:44 PM on June 7, 2007 [7 favorites]


47 feet

'Scuse me ... it's only 43 feet in college ... even closer.
posted by frogan at 1:47 PM on June 7, 2007


In that time, strategy has not changed significantly

Strategy has most certainly changed over the past 100 (home runs in the beginning weren't a major factor, closers are a recent addition, stolen base use to be more prevalent, etc.). And parks sizes, the rules, pitching mound height, the ball, the bat, the uniform, transportation, etc have changed.

The only area where it wouldn't be an advantage to a pitcher is against a slap hitter, who deliberately trades power for bat accuracy and basepath speed.

Being closer to any type hitter is an advantage for the pitcher. Less response time, less room for error.

And yeah, any top-notch softball pitcher will make baseball players look like fools from this distance.

Due to nothing more than hitting fast pitch softball is completely different than what major league hitters are trained for and used to. If given time, they'd adjust.
posted by justgary at 5:59 PM on June 8, 2007


Being closer to any type hitter is an advantage for the pitcher. Less response time, less room for error.

A slap hitter is just trying to contact the ball. It's like a bunt, so response time is almost meaningless.
posted by frogan at 11:26 PM on June 8, 2007


A slap hitter is just trying to contact the ball. It's like a bunt, so response time is almost meaningless.

It might matter less, but trying to bunt a fastball at 70 miles per hour is much different than bunting a fastball at 95.

A slap hitter is still trying to pick out a hit he/she can handle. The faster the pitch, the less time the hitter gets to make a decision to swing or not, and the more perfect the entire swing has to be.

Not meaningless at all.
posted by justgary at 11:38 PM on June 8, 2007


That came out confusing. Basically, what I'm saying is this.

With any type of swing the faster the pitch, the less the response time, the more perfect every aspect of the swing has to be. While I'm coming mostly from a baseball background, I saw enough fastpitch softball slap hitters eaten up by fastballs this weekend to know a 10 mph difference matters.
posted by justgary at 11:51 PM on June 8, 2007


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